Greater than the sun: supplementing fossil fuels with renewable energy might not be enough according to recent Nature paper

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change challenges the widely held belief that by simply substituting fossil fuels with “alternative fuels” may not be enough to decarbonise our economies. Indeed, if I read it correctly some very tough choices lay ahead of us.

Richard York of the University of Oregon notes that due to the complex nature of economic systems, patterns of consumption and human behaviour simply this may note is the case.

The paper, “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” (DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1451)

A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil fuel sources. However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered.

York tests the following assumption:

If, as is the common assumption, non-fossil-fuel energy displaces fossil-fuel energy proportionately, the coefficient for non-fossil-fuel energy should be approximately -1, meaning, controlling for demand, for each unit of non-fossil-fuel energy produced/consumed there should be one unit of fossil-fuel energy that is not produced/consumed. Partial displacement would be indicated by a coefficient between -1 and 0. A coefficient of 0 would indicate that non-fossil-fuel energy sources are simply added on top of fossil-fuel sources, without displacing them.

Using data of from ±130 countries between the periods of 1960-2009, York developed six models to test the above assumption. Each model factored in patterns of energy usage, the influence of urbanisation and manufacturing and the use of hydro and nuclear power.

His results may surprise some:

I show that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

York notes that:

These results challenge conventional thinking in that they indicate that suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.

It’s not that that the use of alternative fuels has no effect, but the effects have been moderate:

Based on all of the results presented above, the answer to the question presented in the title of this paper—do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?—is yes, but only very modestly. The common assumption that the expansion of production of alternative energy will suppress fossil-fuel energy production in equal proportion is clearly wrong. The failure of non-fossil energy sources to displace fossil ones is probably in part attributable to the established energy system where there is a lock-in to using fossil fuels as the base energy source because of their long-standing prevalence and existing infrastructure and to the political and economic power of the fossil-fuel industry.

I don’t think this should promote despair, however York hints at the choice we face:

The most effective strategy for curbing carbon emissions is likely to be one that aims to not only develop non-fossil energy sources, but also to find ways to alter political and economic contexts so that fossil-fuel energy is more easily displaced and to curtail the growth in energy consumption as much as possible. A general implication of these findings is that polices aimed at addressing global climate change should not focus principally on developing technological fixes, but should also take into account human behaviour in the context of political, economic and social systems

In other words: some very hard decisions will need to be made about decarbonising our civilisation, but ultimately these are political decisions.

The paper is behind a pay wall, but I recently took out a personal subscription to Nature in order to get access to this kind of research. In doing so I was hoping to share some of the insights of scientists with a broader audience.

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3 thoughts on “Greater than the sun: supplementing fossil fuels with renewable energy might not be enough according to recent Nature paper

  1. Mekhong Kurt says:

    Not prepared to pay $32 for access solely to the full version of the linked story, I will have to make my comment only speculative, without having read Dr. York’s original paper.

    My attention caught by John Byatt’s comment, I did read the full story at the link he kindly provided (for which, Mr. Byatt, thanks). I would like to say to Mr. Byatt that your comment hinted mildly at the possibility in the story to which you linked might in some way contradict, to whatever degree, what WtD has here. I didn’t see any contradiction at all, nor between your comment and WtD’s commentary in the story.

    I was not aware of the actual “pay back” of a straight 1-for-1 replacement. This is of immense use to me, a valuable bit of knowledge to file and retain in a significant place so that I don’t forget it.

    However that it ultimately doesn’t turn out that one unit of alternative energy fully replaces one unit of fossil fuel energy did not come as any surprise to me, as I have long felt there are strong reasons to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption entirely independent of considerations such as the finite nature of fossil fuels, The chief reason, IMHO, relate primarily to health effect and secondarily to other effects of pollution, perhaps notably the lifespan of structures eroded at a snail’s pace by exposure to pollution from fossil fuels.

    In Dr. York’s mention of the overall social context, I felt vindicated yet again. Not a scientist myself, a clever opponent can block me even while himself not contributing to meaningful discussion — and I’m a fairly skilled debater. But the best debater has to be able to point to facts.

    Two such facts have indeed served me well, particular the past few years of vicious, political polarization regarding this and just about every other subject imaginable. Sometimes I wonder if someone whose position is unassailable simply because he is 100% unwilling to acknowledge, never mind examine, *any* alternative possibilities, someone very “well” represented by deniers. Of course, such deniers are utterly unfazed of the two facts I’m about to mention.

    One is that of COURSE we can’t replace fossil fuels overnight. Even were everyone on the planet convinced of the benefits of doing so, it takes fairly lengthy periods — decades — to accomplish such a monumental task. Openly stating this further opens the way for me to move to the next fact.

    Neither I nor anyone I know, have ever known, or whose comments and articles I’ve read, etc., on the green side has EVER said, “To hell with ExxonMobile’s 100,000 U.S. employees — they have gone over to the dark side, so if they lose their jobs overnight and ultimately starve in the streets — tough luck.”

    Of COURSE we don’t want to condemn our fellow people, fellow Americans in this case, to abandonment. We’re not spawn of Satan,, regardless of contrarian claims we are. We have to help these folks transition away. Personally, many in my grandparents’ families depended on the oil industry in particular during the Great Depression to help them keep their, and their families’, belly buttons from bouncing off their spines. This was especially true on my Mother’s side.

    Nor do we want to see investors, particularly small individual ones just following what has always been considered prudent nor groups such as teacher retirement funds bankrupted by an overnight shutdown of the fossil fuel energy.

    This requires all of us, across the board, to recognize helping these folks will be a sometimes lengthy, usually arduous, and always expensive path to follow. Human decency requires our admission of this. It also requires those of us on the green side to acknowledge that sometimes we demonize our opponents ourselves — and to stop it. There are few relatively good-paying jobs for guys with only a high school diploma; the fossil fuel industry is one in which there are such jobs. Can we really blame the fresh high school grad of 30 or 40 years ago with no disposition towards further study, perhaps no finances to do so in any case, for taking the best job available — often in an oil field or on an offshore platform, or perhaps deep in a coal mine with all the terrible risks coal miners face and endure? Can we?

    I can’t. I don’t. I have many friends my age or so (61) who do such work to this day. Not only are they not bad people; most of them are pretty darned good ones.

    All of that ties in, I think (and hope) with the social context of which Dr. York speaks.

    A final note: Dr. York’s work implicitly, to some extent, suggest point-of-use power generation is in some ways arguably and the more readily doable path to follow. Solar panels on a roof eliminate the problem of transmission, with all that’s many problems (energy loss of distance, relatively long-term mass storage, etc.) and reduce — but not eliminate — pollution. I mean the pollution created in making, delivering, installing, etc. the solar panels themselves. Wind turbines, even in your backyard, do present challenges, much as I personally support them. A reliable stream running smack dab across your property that might provide considerable water energy is a rare creature, indeed, as is a handy geothermal vent. Don’t know enough about tidal/wave energy to say, but in any case, very few of us live on a seashore.

    If you’ve stayed with me — thanks.

  2. john byatt says:

    It did not sound right so chased it up , what he is saying is that the growth in alternates is not keeping up with growth required to counter the growth of fossil fuel use, i think

    http://uonews.uoregon.edu/archive/news-release/2012/3/focus-technology-overlooks-human-behavior-when-addressing-climate-change

  3. Mike says:

    How long before you get a comment from a windbagger? I’ll give it less than an hour.

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